Lying dead on Barrington’s floor buys some time to think. Think about my sure march up to this pitiful death, my life like the only path taken by a row of falling dominoes. Think about that life, the things in it I didn’t choose ’cause I couldn’t. Think about the smoking hole in my third best tie, the dark-blue/light-blue check skinny Sherie gave me so she didn’t have to give me nothing else — think about that hole and the hole to match beneath it, the wet one in my chest staining my shirt an unfashionable shade of pink. Think about spreading Barrington’s nose all over his face with a left jab. All that thinking while my body goes cold and stiff.
Not the first time, not the last. Barrington is this downtown hardcase with uptown swagger — plays the fool more times than is strictly accidental but gets away with it, gets punched around too, but can take it. Gets the girl, usually. I’ve known a dozen like him, guys lucky like they don’t know what, knowing they’re their own heroes but not knowing just why. Me, I know all about it, my eyes are open even when they’re staring cool and dead up from the floor of some cheap motel off Highway 80. Be a goon long enough in this world of ours — a button man, a bruno, a dropper, a plug — play that game long enough and you get wise. Die enough times and you start to see through the cracks.
Heroes, now — those bastards never die.
The pain is real, and so’s the time if you get pinched and sent to the hoosegow. Better a swift shot in the heart, ’cause the sooner that ticker stops its ticking the sooner you can get up and get on with something new. Long as those gumshoes play the hero, triggermen and muscle like me will always be part of the scene. And like I say, you do this flop act for long enough and you get wise to what’s really going on. Learn things you can’t talk about, can’t hardly think about except in the spaces between one fake life and the next.
Up the Piente Reservoir, if you look out over the dead ground they have on the other side of the fence you just might see it. In the basement of Laumann’s you get a glimpse sometimes, like you were somehow looking between the bricks. Bully Blake’s Carpet Company has a spot on the roof the same way, and between midnight and one out on Highway 80 you’ll occasionally spy a snatch if you look straight up in the sky and see things fade and twist and mist back clear again. This world of ours ain’t real, and these damn gumshoe heroes with their expensive jackets and cheap shoes are somebody’s idea of a good time. They’re entertainment.
But whose? Who’s wise to all this, who plays this game? The clients? The tails? The bosses honing strategy with an endless game of defensive chess? Or is it just a watcher from outside? Whenever I think I know the answer I see something that changes my mind, or else a bullet in the gut changes even more than that. And things you wouldn’t believe I remember seeing, though seen like they were through a dirty pane at dead of night — I’ve been killed by beams of light and worked for things that weren’t any kind of human, and there’s one place in my dreams that’s all stars all around as far as you can see — up, down, and every which way, and me walking through it all like in a tunnel of perfect glass.
I think Barrington was there, too, or someone just like him.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll get up from dying one day and run a job for the English King hunting Joan of Arc. Or maybe look up from tailing a mark and see the dark shape of the pyramids beneath the setting sun. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve already done those things — me, Sharky Deaver, triggerman, torpedo, tough guy. Mug.
’Cause that’s the real story, ladies and gents — guys like me ain’t nothing but scenery, a bump in the road for every flatfoot dick to step over. But at least this goon knows the score. At least I get to wake up tomorrow and do it all again — and maybe, just maybe, this next time it’ll be me that gets to walk away with a broad on my arm and a smoking gun in my pocket.
Bill Ward‘s fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and he has also written background material and serial shorts for science fiction and fantasy tabletop game publications. He maintains a blog at www.billwardwriter.com.